The New Europe: Ready for Everything, Except Democracy


National Journal, February 19, 2000

Christine Boutin, a conservative French parliamentarian, was in Washington last week, raising her visibility for a presidential bid in 2002. As it happened, l'affaire Haider had just burst into full, fetid bloom. Asked what she made of it, Boutin, speaking through an interpreter, began by emphasizing and then re-emphasizing that she had no truck with rightist or nativist extremists of any sort. But, she said, she was astonished.

The will of the voters, Boutin said, is sovereign, or should be. Yet here was the European Union condemning and isolating Austria because its electorate had made an obnoxious choice. "I worry about this totalitarian attitude of the EU," she said. Switching to English, she added: "At the level of principle, this is very grave."

Last Oct. 3, the Freedom Party won 27 percent in Austria's elections. The party's leader is Joerg Haider, the 50-year-old governor of Carinthia. Haider is smooth, smart, articulate, handsome, energetic, and ambitious. He is also a creep. In 1991, he praised the Third Reich's "orderly employment policy." Ever since then, Haider has made a specialty of dropping ugly or crass remarks and then apologizing: saying that veterans of Hitler's SS deserve honor and respect, referring to Nazi concentration camps as "punishment camps," maligning various immigrant groups as burglars and thieves.

This stuff is more Archie Bunker than Adolf Hitler, because Haider just as glibly proclaims his support for human rights and democratic rule. But on Feb. 4, when the Freedom Party was sworn in as a junior member of Austria's coalition government, the EU reacted as a horse does to a rattlesnake. The EU's other member countries agreed to shut Austria out of informal EU deliberations, oppose Austrian candidates for international jobs, and suspend the EU ministers' bilateral contacts with their Austrian counterparts.

Those steps were entirely without precedent. They were all the more remarkable because Austria had broken no EU rules. Message: Austria's voters have made an unacceptable choice.

If Americans think about the European Union at all, they view it with a kind of wary friendliness, shading into friendly wariness. Europe's help in Kosovo, its stabilizing influence among the ex-Communist countries, and its commitment to liberal values–all show why the friendliness is justified. The Haider affair shows why the wariness is also justified.

>From afar, the EU is a baffling tangle of institutions prone to regulating the number of holes in Swiss cheese. Up close, as I found when I explored the EU's Brussels bureaucracy for The Economist magazine in 1995, it is shockingly ordinary. The bureaucrats are conscientious policy wonks, just like those at the Office of Management and Budget. The parliamentarians pander and grandstand like members of Congress. In some ways, the EU's government in Brussels looks like our federal government in Washington in the 1960s, before the lobbyists and lawyers took over.

For all its outward banality, however, the EU is the strangest system of government in the free world, including Russia's system (whatever that is) and even the New York City Board of Education. In Brussels, the Europeans have accomplished a historic first: They have created a democratic government without an electorate.

When the leaders of the G-8 countries and the EU gather for their summit in Okinawa this summer, one of them will be different from all the others. Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, will take his place at the table without having been approved by a single voter. Alone among the nine–distinct even from the Russian president–Prodi is an appointed official: a bureaucrat.

His appointment was confirmed by the European Parliament, whose 626 members are the only EU officials ever to face voters (in country-by-country elections). As it happens, however, the parliament is the weakest branch of the union, unable even to initiate legislation. The main lawmaking authority belongs to the Council of Ministers: more bureaucrats. The members of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, are also appointed. So are the magistrates of the European Court of Justice. Except for the parliamentarians, the politicians of the EU represent governments, not people.

Who created this European commissariat? Not the voters. They have had surprisingly little to do with it. Whenever anyone asks them about the uniting of Europe, they express misgivings. The EU's most audacious project, its single currency (the euro), has gone forward despite particularly tepid public support. In 1992, monetary union squeezed past a French referendum with an underwhelming majority of 51 percent–hardly a rousing show of support for the renunciation of economic sovereignty. Denmark's voters rejected the scheme in a 1992 referendum and only grudgingly accepted a slightly watered-down version on a second try. Even in Germany, which is the fulcrum of the whole project, a majority has consistently told pollsters that it opposes relinquishing the Deutsche mark. Luckily for the EU's visionaries, the Germans were not given the opportunity to vote on the question.

None of this is accidental. First among equals in the drive toward European integration has been Germany, and the driving force in Germany for 16 crucial years (until 1998) was former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. A creature of the postwar era, Kohl believed that a unified Germany, left to flap around in the center of Europe, might again become a battleground between East and West, or might even–well, we don't need to go there. Only by dissolving German nationalism into a larger European whole could the German Question be retired for good. "European unification," Kohl said in 1996, "is in reality a question of war and peace in the 21st century."

This sounds pretty neurotic if you happen to be an upwardly mobile German or Spaniard or (for that matter) Austrian under, say, 40. Moreover, if you're a nationalist, or even a mild-mannered patriot, the idea of turning your currency and your immigration policies over to a government appointed (not even elected!) by your neighbors also sounds fairly strange.

Not surprisingly, the anti-EU Haider draws disproportionate support from upwardly mobile young Austrians and from nationalists. Also not surprisingly, these people view the attempt to squash Haider as confirmation of their fears about the EU–which, indeed, it is. The Washington Post notes that if the elections were held again now, Haider's Freedom Party would win not 27 percent of the vote but 33 percent. "Because of the ostracism," Austria's foreign minister fretted recently, "the Freedom Party is growing ever stronger."

Why would the EU undermine its own democratic credentials in order to give Haider such a gift? Post-Hitlerian stress syndrome? Eagerness to seem righteous? Native stupidity? Who knows. But never mind. With its action against Austria, the EU reveals more about its character and core mission than its leaders quite meant to reveal.

The EU seeks to improve commercial efficiency, match American economic and strategic clout, enforce human rights, and entrench democracy. In the minds of Kohl and others of the EU's founding generation, however, the core mission, the Prime Directive, has been to keep European authoritarianism down and out. Thus, the fact that Haider's party won its standing in free and fair democratic elections is beside the point. Or, rather, it is precisely the point. Hitler, after all, began as a partner in a democratically elected coalition. Hitler. Haider. Uh-oh.

Americans can deal productively with the EU, despite its weirdly pseudodemocratic structure, because its member countries are democratic and because European and American interests largely coincide. But the Haider fiasco suggests a deep and systemic divergence between America and the EU. In America, democracy is guarded by the people. In Europe, it is guarded from them.

Someday–who knows?–decades of monetary union and growing intertwinement may bring forth a genuine United States of Europe, with leaders accountable to a pan-European electorate. The Haider affair, however, is a reminder of just how remote that prospect remains. Right now, the EU can be democratic or it can be united, but it cannot be both.

The Haider affair underscores an irony, too. For the entire second half of the last century, Europe aspired to normalcy. That is, it aspired to entrust itself safely to ordinary, rough-and-tumble, wild-and-crazy democratic politics. At long last, the end of the Cold War has made normalcy possible. Europe is safe for democracy. But too late. The postwar generation, Kohl's crowd, has already wedded the continent to a system whose premise is that democracy is not quite safe for Europe.